In the early years when the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, many martyrs died for their faith. Christians have been honoring these martyrs since at least the second century AD. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.
The Church set aside special days to honor some of the saints martyred for their faith, while others were honored by the local churches where they served, dates varying widely. Gradually feast days became more universal. The first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints is referenced in the writings of St Ephrem the Syrian (d. AD 373). St. John Chrysostom (d. AD 407) assigned a day to the feast — the first Sunday after Pentecost (50 days after Easter) — and in the Eastern Churches the feast continues to be celebrated in this way.
The Western Church did not establish a specific all saints feast until AD 609. In 607 Emperor Phocas presented the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple to the pope. The statues of Jupiter and the pagan gods were removed and the Pantheon was consecrated to “all saints” who had died from Roman persecution in the first three hundred years after Christ. Many bones were brought from other graves and placed in the rededicated Pantheon church. Since there were too many martyrs for each to be given a day, they were lumped together into one day, that being May 13, 609 when Roman bishop Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to Christian usage as a church on May 13, 609.
The designation of November 1 as the Feast of All Saints occurred over time. Pope Gregory III (731-741) dedicated an oratory in the original St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of all the saints on November 1, and this date then became the official date for the celebration of the Feast of All Saints in Rome.
St Bede (d. 735) recorded the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1 in England, and another celebration existed in Salzburg, Austria. Ado of Vienna (d 875) recounted how Pope Gregory IV asked King Louis the Pious (778-840) to proclaim November 1 as All Saints Day throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Sacramentaries of the 9th and 10th centuries also placed the Feast of All Saints on the liturgical calendar on November 1.
All Saints Day is a newer name for what was originally called All Hallows Day. Hallow is defined as “holy, venerated, sacred” and was the common term used for saints.
All Saints Day is celebrated by Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. However, because of their differing understandings of the identity and function of the saints, what these churches do on the Feast of All Saints differs widely. For Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and to some extent, Anglicans, All Saints Day is to remember and thank God for the saints, but also to venerate and pray to the saints in heaven for various helps. For Lutherans, the day is observed by remembering and thanking God for all saints, both dead and living. It is a day to glorify Jesus Christ who, by His holy life and death, has made the saints holy through baptism and faith. One critical aspect that the churches have in common is that All Saints Day is for those Christians who made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith: persecution and death.
People prepared for their celebration with a night of vigil on the evening before All Hallows Day, a custom common throughout Europe and not originally tied to any pagan celebrations. That came later, as I will cover in additional posts this week.
The day after All Saints Day —November 2— was added by Abbot Odela of the Cluny monastery in the 10th century as All Souls Day. This is a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of ALL of the departed Christians of faith, however they died. In many cultures the two days have melded together with similar customs.